AMES — Georges Niang drove the paint, secure in the knowledge that at least one of two positive outcomes would occur.
One, the Iowa State forward would beat his defender one-on-one, score, and extend a tenuous four-point lead with a minute and a half left against Texas Tech Wednesday at Hilton Coliseum.
Two — well, that’s what happened.
Niang quickly drew a double team, kept his head up and skipped a pass to Matt Thomas in the corner.
Thomas ball-faked, stepped back and delivered the final dagger against the resilient Red Raiders, who finally succumbed, 76-69, before a sellout crowd of 14,384.
“I had it going by then and I just wanted to knock it down and extend the lead,” Thomas said.
Thomas had it going all night, scoring a career-high 22 points on 6-of-10 3-point shooting.
The hot-shooting junior guard is a sizzling 49 percent from long range in the past seven games and the No. 13 Cyclones (12-2, 1-1 Big 12) needed every picture-perfect stroke he delivered — especially, the last one.
“I just saw that his guy was going to double team so I just swung it out and Matt had been making shots all night, so I was living and dying my him making shots for sure,” Niang said.
Niang resided on the bench for all but four minutes of the first half.
The reason: Foul trouble, Niang picked up two fouls in the first two minutes, but a funny thing happened while he took his seat and watched.
ISU shined with their star player relegated to the cheerleader role. Point guard Monté Morris capped an 11-0 run that put the Cyclones up 31-13 and Tech coach Tubby Smith called a timeout in disgust.
The Red Raiders (11-2, 1-1) responded with a 10-0 flourish, and remained within striking distance, down 40-30 at halftime despite shooting 38.7 percent from the floor.
“First half we were playing off our defense, playing in transition and then zone, with the foul trouble, that ended up slowing us down,” Cyclones coach Steve Prohm said.
Tech’s defensive intensity — along with an abundance of missed layups — helped keep ISU mired in running-in-place mode.
“They’ve got some grit,” said Niang, who scored all 14 of his points in the second half. “They’ve got some toughness about them. They just fight through the end.”
Thomas and Jameel McKay did the same from the beginning.
Thomas, from deep, where his teammates shot just 2-of-12.
McKay from the block, where he scored 19 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, rose up for four blocked shots and hit his first eight free throws as the Red Raiders crept as close as two points from tying the game in the second half.
“Jameel’s numbers tonight are terrific — 19, 14 and four, but I thought he made big-time hustle plays down the stretch, He kept basketballs alive, and we got a couple balls saved, where we could take it underneath out of bounds and obviously scored off that.”
McKay did end up missing two of his last three free throws, but his 9 of 11 night proved to be a season-best performance from the stripe.
“I missed (two) and that’s killing me right now,” McKay said.
He’ll get over it.
Thomas, however, seems to be settling into an extended stay as the type of shooter who opposing defense’s must scheme against to control.
He’s hit 35 of 79 from beyond the arc (44.3 percent) this season after shooting 33 and 34 percent in his first two seasons.
The consistency’s there. He’s hunting his shot in half-court sets and in transition. He’s fully confident, and unfazed by occasional cold streaks.
“I’m finding my rhythm for sure,” Thomas said. “I feel good out there. Just got to keep doing it and keep getting better every day.”
Morris notched his 50th career double-digit scoring effort with 11 points. He added six assists to one turnover. … Deonte Burton didn’t score off the bench, but did grab a season high-tying six rebounds. … McKay climbed to 10th on ISU’s all-time blocks chart. He has 81 in his career.